When Matthias Merges, who left Charlie Trotter’s last year after a decade and a half as its executive chef, opened Yusho in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood (just north of Logan Square), I wasn’t surprised to see his peers flood social media outlets with congratulatory cheer. The enthusiasm for his new restaurant was unanimous, the compliments overwhelming.
Normally, I’m skeptical about this kind of public backslapping among industry folk. I can never tell if they’re merely extending collegial courtesy, or genuine praise.
So, I bumped Yusho to the top of my Chicago itinerary, eager to discover for myself what this culinary lion, now released to the wild, was cooking.
After my visit in early February, I join others in applause. Yusho was great.
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Although I had planned to go to Yusho alone, a friend of mine, who is in the restaurant industry, decided to come with me at the last-minute. So, in full disclosure, we were both known to the house when we arrived. And, in full disclosure, we were refused a bill at the end of the night.
And, while I’m making caveats, I should also tell you that Merges offered to have his kitchen cook for us (he remained at the expediting pass, just a few feet down from us at the bar, all night). We accepted. So, it wasn’t until after our dinner, when I asked to see a copy of the menu, that I realized that very little of what we had was actually offered to the public at the time. Perhaps we got a preview of new dishes in development, or a commingling of different dishes on his menu, or products of creative legwork, on the fly. Whatever the case may be, know that our meal was exceptional in this way.
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“Yusho” is a Japanese toast, a winning call to celebration. And on that note, Merges invites you to party in the streets of Japan, with a grill and a skewer.
Thirteen courses we had, and they were all very good. Some of them were spectacular, like a plate of grilled salmon belly, fatty and flavorful, served with “takoyaki,” a popular Japanese street food. Normally, these little balls – the size of ping pongs, made by pouring batter into a special griddle – contain a nugget of octopus (“tako”). But Merges fills his with salmon roe, rewarding you with a salty gush of creamy warmth when you bite into them. That was delicious. And it’s on the menu. You must order it.
Also spectacular was a stuffed chicken wing; boneless, juicy, and meaty. It came dusted with bonito salt and a dash of lime. You must order this too.
And there arrived an entire, grilled fish collar, with pickled vegetables and steamed buns. Forgive me, I forgot what kind of fish it was. But that’s not really important. All you need to know is that we stripped that collar clean of its soft, fatty flesh, making little sandwiches with it. I’m not sure if this one is on the menu. But if you see it, get it.
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Most of the dishes were comforting; simple, yet impeccable; like a square of amedei, delicate and clean, served with some miso and quick pickles. Or, maitake mushroom – a meaty monster – grilled and served with a coddled egg, barely set, and some onions. This one might have been my favorite dish.
Not everything we were served came off the grill, though.
Our first course was a beautifully assembled temaki kit. It arrived on a tray lined with Asian newsprint. There were little bowls of condiments, and to the lower left corner, a cup of tuna tartare. I had watched Jennifer Petrusky, also formerly of Charlie Trotter’s, finely mince that tuna, not knowing it was meant for us. It was beautiful – a blush of pink, now turned into spreadable wonder, rolled in nori with some togarashi and a bit of umeboshi. I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t on the menu.
And I’m pretty sure that the “Tasting of Skins” wasn’t on the menu at the time either. But I know it is now. There were pork rinds, two kinds of chicken skin, and salmon skin. Normally, fish and chicken skins are never brittle enough. Very few get them right. Merges does. His were shatterific; his were awesome.
We were also served chicken liver mousse in a glass cocotte with a splash of yuzu and some crispy black sesame tuiles rolled into cigars. The mousse was smooth as silk, the tuiles were flaky and crisp, and slightly sweet too, just like those Chinese biscuits of my childhood, flecked with nori flakes, and sometimes sesame. Together, it was a creative bridge between East and West.
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I honestly wasn’t expecting the desserts here to be very good.
Soft serve? It sounded lazy.
But at Yusho, it’s a cool, creamy vehicle for buckwheat caramel, candied ginger, and a buttery waffle cone hat. I would have happily taken another.
Grilled mochi? It sounded chewy, leathery, misused.
But at Yusho, it’s miraculously soft and warm, its thickness cut with passion fruit, matched with dark chocolate.
And tofu mousse? Well, that just sounded like a bad idea. And bland.
But not here. Topped with yuzu granité and perfumed with Thai basil, it was a light and refreshing end.
So, I was pleasantly surprised.
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The restaurant is a shotgun, long and narrow, but surprisingly spacious, especially in the back room. There are tables and booths, both. Or, you can perch at the bar, with a view of the kitchen line. That’s where you’ll find me when I return. It’s lovely up there at the counter, aglow with votive candles and paper cranes (but beware the dismount, you’ll be a few feet off the ground).
As it turned out, my friend and I both knew our server. Well, and she was great. What else can I say?
One more thing: they’re proud of their cocktails here. They make a lot of the ingredients for them in-house (like bitters, and other potions of which I know embarrassingly little). My friend and I split a “Resurrection” (because I like bourbon). And it was very good.
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I compliment the food here because it was very good. Truly.
And, of course, we were treated very well. But I wouldn’t have expected anything less, whether or not I’m a friend of the house.
Yet, ultimately, what I loved most about Yusho, and why I heartily recommend it to you, is that it’s a product of passion. You can feel it in the space, you can taste it in the food, and you’ll see it in Matthias Merges’s eyes.
What is that culinary lion doing, now that he’s been released to the wild? Forget that he’s ex-fine dining, now grilling street food. Forget that he’s a white man making takoyaki. What’s important, and impressive, is that he’s cooking from his heart. And, isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?
At the end of our meal, I invited Merges to come to Kansas City to cook at the annual Chefs’ Classic at The American Restaurant. If you’re in Kansas City on June 24, 2012, I’m shamelessly plugging that good cause here. If not, do go to Avondale, do climb up to that counter, and do order those takoyakis.
Here is the 13-course menu I had at Yusho:
Nori, pickled cucumbers, jalapeño, togarashi, lime.
Grilled Salmon Belly
Salmon roe “takoyaki.”
Black sesame tuiles, yuzu, and pickled shallots.
Bonito salt, lime, Thai chile.
Tasting of Skins
Pork, chicken, and salmon.
Quick pickles and miso.
Oyster and onions.
Nori, shishito peppers.
Passion fruit, chocolate.
To see all of the photos from this dinner, CLICK HERE.
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2853 North Kedzie Avenue